Visualizing Emancipation


The Civil War brought death and destruction upon the American landscape, but for the four million African American slaves residing in the Southern states, it also brought freedom. However, that freedom did not come uncontested. Though the Emancipation Proclamation legally freed the slaves in the deep south, it was, in effect, a wartime measure with little to no credibility in the seceded states. Emancipation, then, had to occur the hard way–through a series of interactions between the enslaved, the union army, and the individual slaveholders themselves. In short, Emancipation owes its materialization to the scores to those on the ground acting according to their own individual circumstances and operating within the messy context of war and rebellion.

Visualizing Emancipation–a project directed by current University of Georgia professor Scott Nesbit and standing president of the University of Richmond, Ed Ayers–charts this messy history. It showcases a war that occurred in disparate localities across the South, often producing differing outcomes. More importantly, however, it displays the ways in which the lines between injustice, liberation, violence and generosity were sometimes blurred. As Nesbit and Ayers put it, “If emancipation was a process, it must have seemed a chaotic, directionless one to many caught up in it. Visualizing Emancipation shows a war in which alliances between enslaved people and union soldiers were uneasy and often tested, but which yielded, somehow, the end of slavery.”

Map of Visualizing Emancipation Project


At its core, Visualizing Emancipation is a map that “organizes documentary evidence about when, where, and how slavery fell apart.” It documents and locates three pieces of information: where slavery was protected, where the Union Army had a military presence, and where emancipation events occurred. Also, by using descriptive icons, it even distinguishes between the different types of emancipation events. For instance, there is an icon to represent the running away of a fugitive slave, an icon to denote slaves being captured by union troops, and another to mark an incident where slaves were recaptured by the Confederate soldiers. However, what I find most compelling about the project is its ability to capture the essence of History as a scholarly field–the study of change over time and space. Since it uses certain GIS mapping technologies, the project is able to evolve over a timeline which appears at the bottom of the screen. Yet, if a user wishes, he or she could easily stop the timeline and choose a particular date. Then, by clicking on the pins, the events come to life. A screen appears that contains the details and documentation of the event chosen.

Overall, I think it is a remarkable project. It possesses the quality of research found in traditional scholarship while capturing the visual, participatory, and spacial capabilities of Digital Media. The project, in its entirety, can be access by using the following link: